Fleet-fingered keyboardist, singer, and songwriter Jon Cleary has been making a name for himself on his own musical terms since arriving in the Crescent City some 30 years ago. Though rooted in the distinctive blues and boogie of New Orleans, his chops run the full gamut of anything funky. “I think that the music has to come first,” he tells me on a rare day off between gigs in his adopted hometown. “When you start setting your parameters based on what supposedly will ‘advance your career,’ you’re likely to dismiss musical ideas that you might otherwise work on. To me, the career part has to come second.”
Cleary has obviously been making the music his first priority since leaving Kent, England for New Orleans at the age of 17. His recent roster of top-tier gigs as sideman, bandleader, and recording session player— from a long stint anchoring Bonnie Raitt’s band to leading his own Absolute Monster Gentlemen—shows that when you’re as good as he is, putting your career second may in fact be the best way to put it first.
“I was lucky that I grew up in a musical family,” Cleary says of his formative years. “My Mum loved New Orleans Jazz—she was a teenager in the 1950s post-war years, when those records first started coming over to England. She played albums by people like Louis Armstrong, Teddy Buckner, and George Lewis. Later, an uncle of mine moved to New Orleans, and he’d send me these big, illustrated letters about the city and people like [fabled blues singer and pianist] Professor Longhair. I had grown up listening to him and Doctor John, to the boogie-woogie stuff and Fats Domino. That music completely blew my mind. I loved New Orleans piano. I knew that as soon as I was able, I was going to go there myself. I originally came here for a short holiday, but I wound up staying.”
Cleary is fiercely focused on his own projects these days. He plays two weekly solo gigs around New Orleans, and is currently crafting an album covering songs by famed pianist Allen Toussaint. “The project started out as a solo piano record, with me covering Toussaint’s song ‘Occapella,’” he says. “Now I’m actually going full circle and adding bass and drums on everything—and I’m digging it! It’s turning out great.”
When asked about his acumen for reinventing other people’s songs, Cleary confesses that geography plays a large part. “I suppose I’m just very lucky to have lived here in New Orleans at a good time,” he says. “I’ve had the chance to hear a lot of the players and bands that made this music what it is. So, what comes out of me is the sum total of all those experiences.”